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Blue Bungalow Farm

Heather Zydek writes about life on the east side of Tosa.

Electrical Fire in the Bungalow

electrical fire, home improvement, fire department

At about 4 p.m. on Wednesday, November 28, our house had an electrical fire. It was the first house fire I'd ever experienced. Hopefully, it will be the last.

Let me back up a bit. A few weeks ago our family decided to spruce up our upstairs TV room as a family Christmas present. The room was carpeted, and like many of the carpets in our old bungalow, this one wasn't in the best condition. So two Saturdays ago I made a rash decision to rip out the carpet, not knowing exactly what I would find underneath. 
 
The carpet removal took about two hours. No big deal.
 
Initially when I decided to pull out the stained carpet in our TV room, I figured in the interest of saving money we'd just live with the condition of the floor, whatever that might be. If it was bad, we could always throw down an area rug. But the wood turned out to be pretty worn and stained. Covering all the stains would have required multiple rugs, which might have cost as much as refinishing the floor of the 300-square-foot room. So I called our wood floor refinisher David and asked him to refinish the floor for us.
 
It was a small job, so he managed to squeeze it in during his busy pre-holiday season.
 
He came over the following Monday for the first round of sanding. Everything went well.
 
Then he returned on Wednesday for a second round. He plugged his sander into the outlet and started working. The sander was probably the most powerful tool we'd ever plugged in upstairs, but it was a residential-grade machine David bought at Home Depot. It was designed to work with a standard 120-volt outlet.
 
About halfway through his sanding work that afternoon, he came downstairs.
 
"I just blew a fuse," he said. 
 
"I'll go turn it back on," I said.  
 
David hesitated. 
 
"OK, but can you come upstairs first? I want to show you something."
 
We went upstairs. 
 
"Do you smell something burning?" he asked. 
 
"Not really." The air smelled like a freshly sanded wood floor – if you've never smelled this, it's like a mix of sawdust and burned wood. 
 
"I definitely smell something burning," he said. 
 
"Maybe it's your machine overheating or something."
 
"No," he said, "I don't think so."
 
David traced the smell to the small closet in the TV room. We looked inside and at first didn't see anything. Then I looked up and saw an orange glow at the top of the closet, where the wall met the ceiling. 
 
As soon as I pointed out the glow of fire to David, we leapt into action. 
 
I ran to get two fire extinguishers from our kitchen. My husband Steve happened to be working from home that day, so he jumped in to help. David quickly extinguished the fire. 
 
For a few minutes, we thought we were in the clear. 
 
We weren't exactly sure how to proceed, but we knew we needed an electrician's input, and soon. Luckily, an electrician lives two doors down from us. So I ran over to his place. He wasn't home from work yet. 
 
When I returned to our house, Steve said we needed to call the fire department just to let them know what happened and to be sure the house was OK. 
 
They sent a truck over a few minutes later. When the crew went upstairs, they felt the wall and said it was hot. Using a thermal imaging camera to search for heat above the ceiling, they were able to locate smoldering insulation in the attic. They busted through the ceiling and found smoke near two burned out electrical tubes and the insulation surrounding them. One of the firefighters squirted water into the attic with a small hose (probably attached to a hand-pump extinguisher – I was too distracted to notice) and put out the fire. 
 
Here's a short video of their work:

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Peeling Back Layers: Restoring the original floors in our kitchen

hardwood floors, home improvement

Old houses, like onions and sensitive ogres, have layers. Peel back those layers of wall paper, paint and flooring and you don't know what you're going to find. 

We've experienced this a few times now in our 95-year-old bungalow, but never has this truism been more apparent than when we recently tore into the 1990s vinyl in our kitchen in the interest, originally, of putting in a new tile floor. What was supposed to be a relatively simple demo and installation of tile became a messy, exhausting, one-month ordeal that ended in the restoration of the home's original maple floors.
 
If you follow this blog you may recall that last year I ripped out our dog-vomit-stained, trampled carpets in our front living and dining rooms to expose the hardwood underneath. I hoped at the time that the original oak floor beneath would be salvageable. 
 
It was. 
 
However, saving the wood – or at least, making it presentable – required more than a wash-down with Murphy's Oil Soap. It was so stained and worn that it needed to be refinished. We hired Norwegian Wood Floors of Oconomowoc to do the job, they were in and out in two days, and we were thrilled with the results. 
 
Tile in the Kitchen
 
Of course, after peeling back one layer of carpet and restoring a beautiful oak floor, our minds wandered to other rooms of our house. What if, we started thinking, we finally ripped out the worn, sun-streaked, permanently-dirty vinyl in the kitchen and replaced it with something nicer (i.e. porcelain tile)? We knew there was hardwood underneath at least a couple of layers of vinyl, but when we asked one of the guys from Norwegian about it last year, he shuddered and told us the wood was likely so stained and gummed up with glue that it wasn't worth saving -- we might as well just keep it covered.
 
So that was the plan, originally. We asked a friend of a friend starting a new tile business to help with demo and install tile. It took us about a week to shop around for a product befitting an old home. We went to all the big box stores and some local tile shops, and most of the options available didn't seem to work with our 1918 bungalow. Finally I found something I liked, but it was a custom order.
 
While we waited for the tiles to come in, we began digging into the old floor.
 
My husband scored it with a circular saw. Then we pried up squares of vinyl glued to plywood with crow bars and hammers. 
 
It started out pretty simple.
 
Soon, though, the enormity of the demolition became apparent when we discovered some complexities under the surface of that top layer of vinyl and sub-flooring. 
 
I jokingly referred to it as "Pandora's Box" on Facebook.
 
First, some background. Our large kitchen used to be three separate areas: a much smaller kitchen to the south, a bedroom to the north and a hallway. In the 1990s a previous owner knocked down a few walls and turned a hallway, bedroom and kitchen into one big room. 
 
Each section presented its own demolition challenges.
 
In the old bedroom and hallway, we found thick particle board under the top layer of vinyl and plywood. The particle board was glued to the floor. Some of it was saturated with water and moldy due to a leaky dishwasher in our kitchen island.
 
In the original, much smaller kitchen we found another layer of vinyl (my mom identified it as Armstrong's "Solarian" vinyl flooring popular in the 70s and 80s). Under that layer of vinyl was more plywood. When we pulled that up we found a thick layer of black paper stuck with tar to the original maple floor. All of these layers throughout the three areas were attached to the hardwood with hundreds of nails and screws. 
 
Changing Direction
 
It was during the demo process that my husband Steve started to have a change of heart about the tile. For one thing, he worried that we'd need a rock solid subfloor to prevent the tiles from eventually cracking in our creaky old home. For another, as soon as he glimpsed some of the maple under all those layers he fell in love. 
 
At first I had my heart set on tile. But the more I thought about it, the better it seemed to have hardwood. If salvageable, why not restore the house to its former glory and not use any new materials in the process?
 
We chewed on this thought over a weekend of demo. 
 
On Monday we decided to return the tiles we'd ordered.
 
We felt pretty good about our decision. But we were also in a very awkward position. We knew what we wanted, but we had this hot mess where our kitchen floor once was and now needed to find an experienced wood professional to restore the floor, pronto. 
 
To be honest, we weren't 100 percent sure it was salvageable. 
 
As bad as that old 1990s vinyl was, what we unearthed was 100 times worse. Screws poked up every which way waiting to snag little toes. Tar paper, wood glue and chunks of particle board were stuck to the floor. You could see the basement through a couple of sizable holes in the wood. Vermiculite insulation poured out of the walls. Remnants of wall frame stuck up in more than a few places. 
 
Worse, we hit a road block: the guys from Norwegian Wood weren't available and then didn't call us back. Another company highly recommended by multiple friends and neighbors – Schmidt Flooring -- was booked solid for at least a month (they said a lot of folks decide to refinish their floors right before Thanksgiving).
 
So Steve went to the web to research hardwood professionals. 
 
He stumbled upon the website of David Passow Custom Contracting, whose array of online work samples and positive reviews impressed us both. We contacted David online and he responded with his rate (a very reasonable $2 per square foot, or a bit more if repairs are involved). I called him in desperation in the midst of finishing our demo and he came out within the hour to give me an idea of how salvageable the floor was. 
 
David wasn't fazed by the complexity of the project and said he'd done numerous floors similar to ours. He was very straightforward about the work he could do. He'd have to be creative to fix certain issues with the floor (gaps in the original hardwood where there were once walls, for example) and try to make everything fit together and line up right. But he had 20 years of experience and gave us an affordable quote. Most importantly, he was able to start work within a week. So we decided to hire him. 
 
He spent about two weeks in our home. The project was complex and at times frustrating, mainly because removal of the walls complicated piecing together boards that didn't line up. But David was creative and resourceful and, in the end, we think he did a fantastic job.
 
I'll let the photos speak for themselves. Here's a before photo of our old vinyl:
 
 
 And here's a view of some of the layers we exposed:
 
 
Note the tar paper in the shot below. We'd already scraped off some of the paper at this point.
 
 
We used a wallpaper steamer to scrape off the sticky tar under the black paper:
 
 
It took David a few afternoons to repair the floor. Finally it was ready for sanding:
 
 
After a round of sanding it looked like this:
 
 
Next came the polyurethane:
 
 
Finally, after weeks of work, it's now finished:
 

How to Dry Herbs

food preservation, drying herbs, seed saving, basil

I admit I'm much better at growing food than I am at preserving it. My small urban lot only produces so much in the way of tomatoes, zucchini, and carrots. Most years, I manage to cook everything I've grown for our family of five before it goes bad. So I have yet to figure out canning. 

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"What Do I Do With All These Potted Mums?" Your fall gardening questions, answered

Fall gardening, composting, vermicomposting, soil preparation, pruning, mums, heeling in, growing indoors, vegetable gardening, strawberries, bulbs, hydrangeas

For this week's blog post, I turned to my friends to ask if they had any fall gardening questions. They did not disappoint! Here are several of their questions, along with my responses.

 
Q: Our garden has finished producing for the summer. When is the right time of year to remove the plants from the garden (raised bed)? Now or in the spring? Or does it really matter? We have green beans, limas, cucs, tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, zucchini & yellow squash vines.
 
A: You could remove plants now if they are no longer bearing fruit. For any plants still bearing fruit (e.g. tomatoes), you could wait until just before the cold sets in and after there's no more hope of Indian Summer -- for me, this is usually the first week of November. Regardless of when you remove dead plants, make sure you do compost them before winter sets in – otherwise, they might provide a place for pests to overwinter. Along with this, if any of your plants are diseased, get rid of them now. For example, this year ALL of my squash plants were infested with squash bugs. These "true bugs" (Hemiptera) sucked the life out of my zucchinis and pumpkins until they were ghostly white and withered. I pulled every bit of those dying plants out, along with the many bugs that were still suckling on them, bagged them, and sent them to the city. Depending on the disease or pest, you probably don't want to compost sick plants in your own yard, lest those diseases come back the following year. 
 
I make an exception for perennials and annuals that have seeds for birds, or that have winter appeal (e.g. ornamental grasses). As long as they're not diseased, you can safely compost them in the spring.
 
Q: How do you prepare a bed for the best spring and summer soil?
 
A: Clear away all dead plant matter and add a thick layer of compost (three to six inches) to the top of your beds now, gently turning it into the top layer of soil. Then let it rest and continue to break down over the winter. This is perhaps the best option for preparing your gardens for the spring. If you don't have any available compost yet, you can wait until the early spring. At that time, the process is just about the same -- spread a thick layer of compost across the top of your garden, gently tilling it in (avoid overly disturbing your soil, as this can lead to soil compaction as soil settles from being tilled). You could also plant a "green manure" (AKA a "cover crop"), which is a type of crop you sow and let grow until the freeze, then till into the soil in the early spring. Depending on which types of seeds you plant (options include various legumes, sorghum, millet, buckwheat, and so on) the plants will fix nitrogen in the soil and/or provide organic matter when you till it in later on. 
 
Q: Is it too late to move my hydrangea?
 
A: Hydrangeas are deciduous (woody) shrubs. While this forum says to transplant them in October, another source says to transplant them after their leaves have fallen and they've gone fully dormant, in November or so. I would imagine that the best times to transplant hydrangeas would be very late fall (when the ground is still soft) or very early spring. I transplanted three hydrangeas last spring and they survived, even through the drought – but I had to water them a lot. Whatever you do, just make sure you keep your hydrangea hydrated. 
 
Q: I just bought a few hardy mums in plastic pots for fall decor. Can I keep them in the pots over the winter, perhaps on my porch or near the foundation of the house where it's warmer, and then plant them in the spring?
 
A: My understanding is that many mums are on the tender side and may not survive a harsher winter -- especially with their roots above ground. If you don't want to plant them now (you can do so up until the ground freezes), find a warm location on your property (for example on the south side, if there's sun exposure) and "heel in" the pots. Submerging the roots in their pots insulates them and gives them a better chance of making it through the winter. I take the potted perennials I didn't get around to planting and heel them in to one of my raised beds. This worked very well for the sedums, mums, and other perennial divisions I wanted to save over the winter of 2011-12. I successfully transplanted them all last spring. Here's a photo of this year's leftover perennials, which I just dug into one of my raised beds:
 
 
 
Q: I use vermicompost, but what application technique do you recommend? Can it be used to fertilize my mature pear tree? Also, should I reapply throughout the summer?
 
A: Vermicompost can be used to fertilize trees, shrubs, perennials, annuals and even grass, and a little goes a long way. You can fertilize any time of year without harm, though it's best to use vermicompost when your plants aren't dormant, in spring and summer. You can simply sprinkle some vermicompost around the base of a plant, OR (and this is my preferred method) you could make compost tea. Mix a scoop of vermicompost (1/2 to 1 cup) with a gallon of distilled water and use the solution to water around the plant. If you want to go a step further, you could use an aquatic air pump and a little molasses and make your own super-charged compost tea a la this method. This encourages increased growth of the beneficial microorganisms in the compost and makes for healthier, happier plants. 
 
Q: I just had my first garden this year. What do I do now? Some tomatoes and strawberry plants are still alive.
 
A: You can leave your strawberry plants in place and mulch them in late fall for added winter insulation. Some people will mow them down after immediately they've borne fruit (this is called renovating), though you should not cut them in the fall, as you may remove blossom buds for next year's crop. As for your tomatoes, if they're still growing (the "indeterminate" varieties will grow on and on until it's too cold for them) leave them as long as you can -- again, I usually leave mine until Indian summer is over. At that time, I pick every single remaining fruit -- even the tiny, slightly withered green ones -- and put them a paper bag. This helps ripen the tomatoes. Then I will use them to make chili or creamy tomato soup. 
 
Q: What about fall pruning? 
 
A: Generally speaking, it's best to prune shrubs and trees when a plant is dormant. Right now most plants are in the process of going dormant, but are perhaps not there yet. Since pruning stimulates new growth and can attract pests, pruning them just before a freeze might endanger the tree or shrub. So it's best to wait until late winter to prune, when your plants are dormant. According to the UW-Extension Master Gardener Manual, "the best time to prune most deciduous trees and shrubs is during late winter, before plants begin to leaf out in spring. Pruning cuts heal most quickly in spring, and diseases and insects that spread diseases are dormant during winter." 
 
Q: Bulbs! Which ones to plant now, which ones should come out into storage. Also: how do you best to transplant bulbs across zones?
 
A: The only bulbs I grow – mainly tulips, daffodils, and alliums – were planted by a previous owner of my home. I simply let them bloom in the spring, cut them down when they're finished and leave them for next year. That's the beauty of hardy bulbs – they're pretty low maintenance. Now if you're talking about tender bulbs – dahlias and canna lilies come to mind – you do have to over-winter them indoors. My mother-in-law does this with her beautiful and extensive dahlia collection. Here's a helpful article from the University of Minnesota Extension that breaks down the steps involved in storing tender bulbs, from gently digging them up to curing and storing them. 
 
As for planting bulbs, I consulted with my UW-Extension materials and the best time to plant tender bulbs is in the spring, after the last frost; hardy bulbs should be planted in Wisconsin in mid-October, slightly later for the hardiest of bulbs (e.g. tulips). You can transplant bulbs any time they are dormant (when the leaves have died back). How deep should you plant them? "Hardy bulbs should be planted at a depth 2 1/2 times their circumference." 
 
Q: What can you tell me about gardening year round? 
 
A: It is possible to grow year-round, though depending on where you live this can be a costly and time-consuming endeavor. Here in the Milwaukee area, you need a heated greenhouse to grow in the winter. My own property is much too small for this. I have grown herbs, spinach and lettuce with some success under grow lights inside my home (see this post to learn how to make your own grow light area without spending a fortune). I also have several potted dwarf fruit trees -- pomegranate, fig, orange, banana, coffee. I put them outside in summer and bring them in around October 1. None of them have borne enough fruit to be worth mentioning, though the tiny, super-tart oranges I got a couple years ago were great in mixed drinks! 
 
Growing indoors is hard because plants will never get the amount of light inside our homes that they really need. I remember in my Master Gardener training our teacher told us that even the sunniest window is darker than a densely shaded forest. This causes most indoor plants to go dormant, meaning they won't produce much at all. The other problem that comes with raising plants indoors is fungus gnats. These tiny creatures are the bane of any indoor gardener's existence and are very hard to control without chemicals. Having said all that, I still think it can be a fun and rewarding challenge to grow herbs, lettuce, and spinach indoors, and I always start my garden plants indoors in the winter and grow them under lights in my basement, as well as in a mini-greenhouse in my kitchen. 
 
One of the best things to grow outdoors *almost* year round is spinach. It's very cold-hardy and I've found it growing well into the late fall and then again in very early spring. Give it a try!
 
Do you have a question about gardening? E-mail me at heatherzydek(at)gmail(dot)com and I'll try to find an answer for you! 
 
Until then, I'll close with this photo of my favorite plant this fall:
 

Plants on the Cheap

Fall gardening, plant clearance sales, bargain hunting, local garden centers

By September of each year, gardening often falls off my radar. I'm a college instructor, and once the new academic year kicks into gear my gardening passion simmers, usually until I begin starting seeds indoors in late winter. 

This year has been a bit different. I did very little gardening over the summer because of the wretched drought and heat. So I didn't get my gardening fix. Maybe because I had a gardening itch that needed scratching, I decided in September to rip out my lawn and replace it with perennial beds – something I've wanted to do for years. 
 
I was able to replace much of the removed grass with perennials I divided from my own yard. But what I had wasn't quite enough. I needed more plants – and cheap. Thankfully, this time of year it's fairly easy to come by inexpensive perennials. In the fall, most local nurseries mark down their inventory considerably. 
 
 
Overall, while some nurseries are picked-over, others still have a nice variety of interesting perennials at reduced prices, and will have them through at least mid-October (some through early November). With Indian summer upon us, it's a great time to do some last-minute planting. 
 
Is it safe to plant perennials in the fall? According to Mike Osheim, Assistant Lot Foreman of Stein Garden and Gifts, it's generally safe to plant hardy perennials and shrubs until the ground is frozen. 
 
"I've planted stuff really late and it's come back," he said.
 
Below is a wrap up of what seven garden centers within a ten-mile radius of Wauwatosa have to offer this fall. Nurseries are arranged according to their approximate distance from the Village of Wauwatosa.
 
8520 West North Avenue, Wauwatosa
414.453.8450 ‎
Approx. 1.5 miles from the Village
Good for: Local pumpkins and firewood, some clearance plants, supporting the little guy
This is a cute, happy place where I always try to buy my annuals in the spring. Their fall selection is VERY limited, though you will find a few perennials and shrubs – and I mean very, very few – at discounted prices. For those of us on the east side of Tosa, Wisconsin Garden and Pet is worth supporting in whatever ways possible because it's in the neighborhood. So if you're looking for fall bulbs, pumpkins, firewood, or discounted catmint, be sure to check them out.
 
12217 West Watertown Plank Road, Wauwatosa
414.258.5525
Approx. 3 miles from the Village
Good for: unique half-price perennials (get them before they're gone!)
Hands-down, my favorite garden center this fall is Hawks. Now, I should preface this by saying that I almost never visit Hawks in-season. I'm a bargain hunter, and I always try to buy plants at the cheapest prices (my favorite source is the Master Gardener plant sale in late May). The thing about Hawks is it's very boutique – they have lovely plants, unique cultivars that gardeners like me drool over. But they are sold at premium prices I can almost never afford. But this time of year, those unique cultivars, while somewhat less bountiful than in the spring, are sold at half price. When I visited this week, for example, I was able to buy an interesting sedum hybrid ('golden acre') that I don't have for just under $4. I also got a beautiful "Red-Leaved Thrift" plant for the same price. Score.
 
  
Fred's Garden Center
6238 West Appleton Avenue, Milwaukee
414.442.4492 ‎
Approx. 3 miles from the Village
Good for: healthy, well-nurtured perennials at slightly reduced prices, supporting the little guy
I'd never even heard of Fred's until a Google search of local garden centers yielded their name and address. So I recently checked them out and wow – what a little gem this place is! This small garden center owned by locals Fred and Dianne Rayner consists of a few tightly arranged greenhouses tucked away on Appleton and 62nd Streets in Milwaukee's Enderis Park. Fred's is open year-round, though they usually sell out of most of their perennials in the mid-fall and focus on Christmas trees, tropicals and cemetery arrangements during the winter months. Currently they are selling gorgeous, healthy, perennials, grasses, mums, and hanging baskets at prices ranging from 3.99 for a one-quart perennial (five for $18) to $7.99 for a one-gallon perennial. All Fred's plants are grown from seed on location. 
 
 
12000 West Burleigh Street, Wauwatosa
414.257.4159
Approx. 4 miles from the Village
 
4100 North 124th Street, Wauwatosa
414.353.5471 ‎
Approx. 5 miles from the Village
 
Both are good for: discounted filler, shrubs
I'm actually going to lump Lowes and Home Depot together because they are so similar. Both big box stores are discounting their already affordably-priced plants this time of year. You'll find healthy-ish plants at modest discounts and sick, dormant or half-dead plants at deeper discounts, though the selection is limited. I like to visit both of these stores from time-to-time to check out their sales, though the variety of cultivars they offer is pretty humble – lots of hostas and daylilies and mums and shrubs – nothing terribly unique. Supplies should last through late October / early November, when both stores bring in their Christmas trees. Lowes did have several blueberry plants on sale, if you care to try your hand at growing the acid-loving plant in our alkaline soils (I haven’t had much luck yet, but I'm still trying!).
 
14845 West Capitol Drive, Brookfield
262.783.2323 ‎ 
Approx. 7 miles from the Village
Good for: clearance ground cover and dormant perennials, while they last
According to Mike Osheim, there are many shrubs left at discounted prices – deciduous shrubs are 20 percent off and evergreens are 30 percent off. There may also still be some deeply discounted perennials in small pots – most of them dormant – for a dollar or two a piece. Plant purchases come with a two-year warranty. Supplies typically last until mid November and will be discounted until they sell. 
 
7777 North 76th Street, Milwaukee
414.354.4886 
Approx. 8.5 miles from the Village
Good for: unique perennials at discount prices
Minors isn't the least expensive of nurseries, but visiting is still a treat for serious gardeners because of the breadth of their plant varieties. Collectors of coral bells, sedums, and other perennials will delight in the wide array of cultivars offered at this family-owned nursery in business for over six decades. I regret to say this is the one nursery I haven't made it to this fall, mainly due to very annoying construction on Capitol Drive north of Wauwatosa. So I called the store and retail manager Henry Beck gave me the low-down. He told me they are having a parking lot sale and still have "the full complement of deciduous and evergreen shrubs." 4 1/2" potted perennials are half-off. Of the 600 varieties they once sold in the spring, they are down to about 150 varieties – still a good selection. Beck said they also have an excellent selection of gallon-size grasses, which never go on sale because if they don't sell, they'll be heeled-in until the spring. Plants are usually sold until the middle of November
 
Good for: locating discounted plants grown by hobby gardeners
I've found some excellent spring plant sales through Craigslist, some on par with the Master Gardener's perennial sale. So now I always try to check Craigslist first when in need of plants. Go to milwuakee.craigslist.org and search with the keyword "plants" and/or "plant sale." You may have to drive out to the country for some sales, but at $1 a pop for each perennial, the 20 to 30 minute drive is often worth it.
 
Take care of your new plants!
After planting all my new discounted plants, I mulched them heavily in order to protect their roots from the coming cold. I normally spread mulch in the spring, usually every other year. I had to cover the soil in my front yard so I ordered five cubic yards of the economy-grade mulch from Melvin Mulch in Milwaukee. Cost me about $60. Now I feel confident that my new fall plantings will have the best chance possible of coming to life again next spring. 
 

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